Friday, July 23, 2010

Christian Carion's FAREWELL exposes a funny/nasty/true cold-war spy tale

Real-life spy stories don't get much more bizarre than the one told in Christian Carion's by-turns droll and sad FAREWELL (L'Affaire Farewell). When this film made its American premiere last March at the FSLC's Rendez-vous with French Cinema (my earlier, shorter notice is here: click and scroll down), it seemed to provoke some confusion: Was the film a thriller? A satire? A drama? Truth? Or one of those semi-concocted creations "based on a real event"?  All of the above, I would guess.

The details of the actual "caper," as it unfolds under the quiet direction of M. Carion (shown at right), are just too juicy to spoil.  Suffice it to say that, via the leadership of our own Ronald Reagan, Russians spies had managed to reach as far up the U.S. ladder as the President's White House staff (and, yes, this is documented). If that's not enough to entice you to the film, the inspired casting of and surprising impersonation/performance by Fred Ward (below) as the then-sitting, if rarely thinking, President should clinch the deal. Mr. Ward, usually a delightful addition to any movie -- The Right Stuff to Remo Williams to Tremors -- here outdoes even himself.

With dialog in French, English and Russian and cinematography that appears to capture each place well (though the movie may have been economically filmed in Romania, for all I know), writer/director Carion (who also gave us the Academy-nominated Merry Christmas and The Girl from Paris) has now hit a very solid three for three, with each movie so different in time, place and subject matter that the only thing uniting them is intelligence and quality.

At the heart of his new film are two men: a young French engineer working in Russia and an older, disenchanted Colonel in the KGB. The latter, intent on bringing to a halt the degrading of the Communicst ideal, makes contact with the former, and after convincing him to help, begins passing documents that will blow open the vast Russian spy network that has by then infiltrated both France and the USA (many other countries, too, one suspects -- but it's these two that are here concerned).

Our Frenchman is played by Gallic "Everyman" Guillaume Canet (above) and the Russian by former-Yugoslav writer/director Emir Kusturica (below, right with Ingeborga Dapkunaite, as his wife).  Canet is just fine as the somewhat reluctant and then rather gung-ho emissary, but it is Kusturica who commands the movie.  His performance is so strong and deeply-felt (yet underplayed and quiet, as befits a fellow who has spent his working life pretending).  He possesses the natural gravitas to carry off what is one of the more difficult roles in recent cinema.

The real Russian Colonel, I recall reading, was not nearly as pure-minded and in fact more venal and cynical than the man portrayed by the film. Here perhaps is where the film's reality becomes smudged.  Yet, the filmmaker and his actor have created such an indelible portrait -- a sad, cynical man who still retains enough hope to continue trying -- that I happily sacrifice some reality in order to meet a character as richly conceived and portrayed as this one.

As the movie progresses, it also becomes more interesting, but then toward the end, there is a bit too much last-minute frenetics involving the usual "escape" routine of the Canet character and his family (Alexandra Maria Lara, shown above, right, with Canet, plays his wife).  So much of the film has been about ideas and ideals, how governments work (or don't) that this sudden escalation, even if true-to-life, seems manufactured.  The final section, however, devoted to what happens to our Russian, is so effective and moving that it is this you'll leave the theater feeling and thinking about.

Farewell, from NeoClassics Films Ltd., makes its theatrical debut today in NYC (at the Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas) and in L.A. (The Landmark, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5 and Regal Westpark) today and will open on a number of other screens in the weeks to come.  You can find all scheduled playdates here (just click the link, then scroll down).

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